How films reach our eyes has become a major issue. Audience willingness to watch movies on their phones and computer screens has put the cinematic experience in jeopardy. That being said, 2019 was a banner year for movies, one that saw the end of Marvel’s cinematic universe, a number of exciting pictures from female directors, and Martin Scorsese returning to his roots. Below are ten pictures I loved from 2019 (plus a few more).
10. Ford v Ferrari
Written by: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller
Directed by: James Mangold
Ford v Ferrari is a well-cooked kernel of popcorn cinema: sentimental, predictable, and a ton of fun. The film stars Academy Award winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale as Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, auto-makers and race car drivers who work with Ford to develop a vehicle that can challenge the Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Audiences were as giddy as hippos in mud during the auto racing scenes, cheering Miles past the flag at every turn, yet sobbed like birds without wings at the film’s devastating conclusion. Exceptionally good of its type thanks to top-notch performances, a stirring soundtrack, and honest direction, the picture offered one of the best times at the theater all year.
Written by: Todd Phillips
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Those same people who were upset by Scorsese’s comments about comic cinema, defend Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight on the merits of it “not feeling like a comic book movie.” Todd Phillips’s dark and dismal account of Joker’s evolution from mentally disturbed clown to malevolent villain truly does not feel like a comic book film. In fact, the worst parts of the movie are those dealing with Thomas Wayne and his multinational corporation. Ironically, Phillips’s gritty aesthetic owes a bit to Scorsese and his hard-hitting movies of the New Hollywood period. There is a creepiness to the grimy streets of Gotham and Joker’s freedom to operate there without detection. The picture is driven by Phoenix’s haunting and visceral depiction of psychosis. He bears the pain of a man out of place in this world, the deep wrinkles of his face carving a picture of his troubled life.
Written by: Nicolas Pesce
Directed by: Nicolas Pesce
Piercing exhibits majestic visuals and a serpentine narrative (along with other giallo conventions) to create a stylish tale of terror and suspense. A lurid follow up to Nicolace Pesce’s debut, The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing further demonstrates the director’s beautifully grotesque vision. Starring Christopher Abbott as a successful businessman whose murderous obsessions are mollified by the vicious impulses of a kinky sex worker (Mia Wasikowska), the picture draws you in to Pesce’s perverted world and compels you to accept the obscene curiosities of its characters. With tremendous performances, the film offers a sometimes funny, occasionally compassionate but always provocative plunge into debauchery.
Written by: Mitzi Peirone
Directed by: Mitzi Peirone
Writer/director Mitzi Peirone’s trippy and curious debut Braid relies on surreal imagery and a hyperkinetic pace to deliver a bit of feminine madness. It’s a spellbindingly challenging allegory about female relationships fueled by an elaborate production design and hip characters. While many viewers will find its subversive style frustrating, none can deny its exceptional command of the medium. After losing their money in a drug bust, Petula and Tilda decide to rob their mentally unstable, yet wealthy friend Daphne. In turn, they are forced to enter into a hazardous game of make-believe. The camera moves about the frame at a dizzying pace capturing the world through an intoxicated lens. Reality and fantasy blur. Audiences become consumed by anxiety as they try to put together the pieces.
6. Light of My Life
Written by: Casey Affleck
Directed by: Casey Affleck
The deliberate pace and somber mood of Light of My Life recall last year’s Leave No Trace. Like that film, Light of My Life sees a father and daughter fighting for survival on the edge of society. Unlike that picture though, Light of My Life plays out in a post-apocalyptic world where sickness has wiped out most of the female population. The cracked asphalt and dismembered buildings paint a cold and piercing picture. The stillness of the world created by director Casey Affleck sends shivers down your spine. The movie tests the emotional endurance of viewers from the father’s poignant retelling of the tale of Noah’s ark in the picture’s opening moments to its traumatic but hopeful conclusion.
5. Under the Silver Lake
Written by: David Robert Mitchell
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s follow up to the nail-bitingly tense It Follows is a cinematic ventilator, breathing fresh air into the stale lungs of a Hollywood gasping for originality. Under the Silver Lake stars Andrew Garfield as a discontented young man who becomes obsessed with finding his missing neighbor in Los Angeles. He finds clues in comic books, rock ‘n’ roll songs, and the backs of cereal boxes. Recklessly bold and absurdly funny, the picture projects the troubles and hopes of its characters onto the screen, at once inviting deep thought and forcing viewers to shake their heads at the ridiculousness of it all. Though it may prove too impenetrable for audiences seeking a more conventional narrative, it benefits from a subversive style, masterful direction, and batty characters. It’s a beautifully bright, neo-noir shitshow and I loved it.
4. High Life
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Directed by: Claire Denis
French director Claire Denis’s first English-language film is both intriguing and baffling in equal measure. Following a group of criminals who’ve signed up to be sexual Guinea pigs aboard a ship in the distant future, High Life utilizes dream-like imagery and a hypnotic soundtrack to examine the desires of humankind. It wraps itself around viewers, forcing them to be part of its unusual universe. There’s something eerily prophetic in the actions of the characters. Unfolding like a terrible nightmare, the movie trades on an ambiguous design and an unusual blending of art-house and B-movie stylings to shock and seduce viewers. It’s heavy and mysterious, disturbing and engaging, and unlike any movie released this year.
Written by: Ari Aster
Directed by: Ari Aster
Midsommar is the feverishly violent, berserko occult chiller we were all clamoring for. Directed by Ari Aster and distributed by A24 releasing, the movie accompanies a teetering young couple to a mid-summer festival in Sweden where townsfolk perform violent and freakish rituals. Midsommar is an uncompromising movie that exhibits the mood and texture of a terrifying dream. Its surreal universe, ambiguous imagery, and intrusive score force your gaze. Despite its unsettling tone, there is a lyrical quality to its delivery; a rhythm and beauty to the madness that keeps you from looking away. The film eclipses Aster’s debut Hereditary, solidifying him as a modern master of the macabre.
2. Dragged Across Concrete
Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Dragged Across Concrete is exactly what it sounds like—an all-American exploitationer teeming with red-blooded intensity and bone-shattering violence. Writer/director Craig Zahler excels at creating dim characters in grim situations. Perfectly mixing taut suspense with twisted humor, he leans on his masculine obsessions to create a picture of the world that is recognizable if you’re willing to give it a look. Starring Hollywood bad guy Mel Gibson as an embittered cop who turns to crime to support his family, Dragged Across Concrete is a superbly crafted crime flick that offers a sensitive look into the hearts of hard men and remains entertaining from bleak opening to thrilling finish.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, writer/director Quentin Tarantino has developed a fictional universe built on spaghetti westerns and chop-socky action flicks. His latest effort, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, extends his streak of bold, precocious pictures to nine. An audacious blending of real history with Tarantino’s fanboy musings, this adventurous epic about the struggles of a declining actor and his loyal stunt double to sustain relevance during the tail-end of Hollywood’s golden era boasts impassioned filmmaking and strong performances making it one of the filmmaker’s best. It is a bold, stirring film and my favorite movie of 2019.
I ALSO REALLY LIKED: 1917, The Beach Bum, The Dead Don’t Die, Dolemite is My Name, In Fabric, Knife + Heart, Knives Out, Marriage Story, The Nightingale, Portrait of a Lady on Fire